Learning Experiences: 12/04


Chain of Events
On a cold, clear night a few years ago, I convinced myself that I needed to re-establish my night currency so I could carry passengers after the sun goes down. In retrospect, I guess I really wanted to prove that I could fly by myself at night. Kidding myself was the first of several stupid mistakes I made.

One of the things I did that night was smart-I arrived at the airport before dark to preflight the airplane I had scheduled. At the time, it was the only plane operated by the FBO with which I was familiar.

After darkness fell, I walked out to it, climbed in and ran the checklist. Soon, the engine was idling and I was copying the ATIS, preparing my initial call up. I keyed the mic and read off my N-number but heard no reply. After several attempts, I realized the push-to-talk switch was inop.

At this point, I should have called it a night. But, Id told too many friends and family members about my plans for this night flight, so I was determined to make it happen.

The lineman pulled out another plane for me, which I had to preflight on a cold, dark ramp entirely by flashlight. Id only been in this plane once-as a passenger-so I was a bit nervous.

Only after carrying all my stuff from the old plane to the new one and getting things arranged did I notice the panel lighting was inop. So, this plane, too, was unsuitable for the night flight I had planned. I had another chance to call it a night but didnt take advantage of it.

Again, the lineman pulls out another plane, the third this evening. Id never been near this plane before, much less flown it. After yet another preflight using a flashlight and a few minutes familiarizing myself with this new panel, I finally got underway.

Taxiing out, I notice the taxiway lights are blurred. Ignoring this, I perform my pre-flight checklist and the run-up. Soon, I receive a takeoff clearance and begin my takeoff roll.

Right after the wheels leave the runway, I routinely glance at the panel to verify what is going on. I noticed that the faces on all the gauges have fogged over, almost instantly. Not having a better option, I pull on the cabin heat and defrost control, which clears the windshield enough for me to make out individual lights on the ground, as opposed to the blurry view I had earlier. The panel gauges hadnt cleared, yet, adding to my building confusion.

While climbing out, the tower changes the runway in use and traffic pattern direction on me. Of course, Id never used that runway or pattern direction before. At this point, I decided to end my misery and immediately requested a landing clearance.

The landing was uneventful and I was glad to climb out and call it a night. While I wasnt successful in establishing night currency, I did learn a lesson Ill never forget.

While they were not serious ones-like overloading an airplane or continuing on into adverse weather-I made a series of poor decisions and, as my frustration grew, could have called it quits, packed up my stuff and gone home at several points. Also, I could have gotten an instructor to go with me to instill more confidence.

What began as a simple night flight to regain currency turned into an oversold (to my friends, family and myself) attempt to prove something. While the overall situation was not a critical one, I came closer to becoming an accident statistic that night than I ever had before. It was a learning experience which will weigh heavily each time I contemplate a night flight.


Letting Go
I am a 550-hour Instrument-rated Private pilot, mostly flying Cessna Skyhawks. My story starts a few years ago when, as a third-lesson student learning slow flight, I entered an inadvertent spin. My reaction was to freeze at the controls. All I really remember is my instructor yelling, LET GO! I finally unfroze, let go of the controls and the instructor recovered. Since then, I have had a fearful respect of avoiding any possible incipient spin.

Last winter, I made a trip to Kentucky from Florida. A 1000-mile cold front extended across my route, forcing me to fly through light-to-moderate rain for most of the trip. Over Tallahassee, I must have entered a microburst; I found myself in an extremely unusual attitude, but recovered quickly and correctly.

This experience left me with the unsettling feeling that, sooner or later, Mother Nature will one day get me into a spin. The question was whether I would freeze or recover. I decided to do something about it.

I searched out a flight training organization that offers a formal upset training and spin recovery course. I took the two-hour spin recovery course; my son, a 100-hour pilot, opted for the 10-hour unusual attitudes program.

Sure enough, when the instructor demonstrated a spin and a recovery, I was petrified and, somewhat in shock, froze. Then it was my turn. We did extreme attitudes, power-on stalls, power-off stalls, a rollover, recovered from two incipient spins and six full three-turn spins, all in a Cessna 152 Aerobat.

I have recovered from left and right spins and feel much more confident. I am also much more secure with my knowledge of spins and recovery. This training left me much more confident in myself and my abilities while droning along straight and level. I now believe spin training should be part of every pilots learning experiences.


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